REVIEW: Watch the Wall, My Darling by Jane Aiken Hodge
Only a deathbed promise to her dying father could force Christina Tretton to travel to Tretteign Grange, the ‘Dark House’, and meet her estranged family for the first time. Having to fast-talk her way out of an encounter with smugglers on the way is only the beginning. Waiting for her is flighty aunt Verity, her two very different cousins – the stoic Ross and fawning Richard – and her formidable grandfather, who changes his Will every few days.
Taking the neglectful servants in hand, Christina is soon managing the house, proving herself invaluable in her grandfather’s eyes. This backfires when he decides he wants her as his heir, and only on the condition that she marries Ross or Richard. Outraged, she swears she will marry neither, but her cousins have different ideas. Should she marry the cousin she is drawn to, even if he appears to have no true feelings for her?
Hanging over them is the constant threat of invasion, as Dark House looks over the sea to France, and Napoleon. When cousin Ross disappears, it is up to Christina to stand in his stead and take on the running of the estate – amongst some of his more disreputable duties. For as soldiers work to fortify the coast, Christina finds herself in the twisted intrigues of smugglers and spies.
I’ve had mixed success with books by Jane Aiken Hodge. I couldn’t finish the first one I tried but persevered based on many comments that there were better ones. Yes, indeed there are as my last venture was an A- grade for me. This one … has its strengths but a few weaknesses as well.
The title refers back to the poem “A Smuggler’s Song” by Rudyard Kipling wherein a listener is advised to see nothing and tell no one of any strange sounds or events that the smugglers might be up to. There’s a lot more than that at stake here, though as the south coast of England waits and watches for a feared invasion by Napoleon. In the meantime, however, the age old smuggling trade continues.
Newcomer Christina Tretton (her father changed how he spelled the family name) has traveled from America where she was born and raised. Her initial encounter with the locals almost gets her killed but she wisely plays nice, promises to say nothing, and gets free of the masked men who accost her. She immediately knows that life at the drafty, dark, family manse (which used to be an Abbey until the reformation and is reputed to be haunted) is going to be interesting.
The gothic is strong in this novel – almost overwhelming at times. A brooding house, barren marsh, truculent servants, whittering aunt, overbearing grandfather, and two male cousins move in and out of Chris’s life now. She knows full well that smuggling is going on and that one of her cousins is up to his neck in it but there are other forces at work. To be honest, it takes a while for this to be laid out and even through the end, not all is quite explained. Since everything is told through Chris’s POV, a lot of what ought to have been exciting is merely scenes of her waiting and worrying about things happening elsewhere.
But I like Chris. She’s a strong woman who takes no prisoners and goes full bore for what she wants. She mows down opposition and takes no shit from anyone including her irascible grandfather who up until now has had everyone bamboozled. When he tries to manipulate her, along with her cousins, she has a wily response and, like Elizabeth I, keeps everyone guessing while keeping a trump card up her sleeve.
Still things got just a bit frustrating at times as Chris must react to circumstances she doesn’t fully understand and (sort of) keep the home fires burning while greater events take place off page. One cousin tends to take it for granted that Chris will do whatever he demands while not really filling her in on the details. Luckily for him, Chris is willing but not necessarily for his sake. There are also times I felt I was missing information – as if this was book two in a series. Chris’s family history in America is convoluted and only partially explained. When danger finally does appear, she manages to get herself out of more than one pickle and shows herself to be a tower of strength.
There is a romance but I was steaming about it for a good long time. It’s obvious what Chris’s thoughts are but the object of her affections is a lunkhead for most of the book. Seriously he needed to be smartly whacked upside his head a few times. There’s a point where Chris seems to acknowledge that it will never be and she relaxes about it making me cheer for her as she rises up from the almost doormat position she had allowed to happen and got some of her agency back. The Lunkhead is depicted as such a daring, powerful man whom the Higher Ups in London can’t do without yet he continuously makes stupid mistakes, gets Chris into danger – which she must get herself out of – and disappears for weeks on end leaving the family and Chris to clean up his messes then reappears to whine about his lot in life.
As the book concluded, there are a few loose ends. Something happens (never explained) that Chris has to financially rescue the family from and she discovers that she’s fallen in love with this dank, dark, dangerous place. I got a little mad in her statement that she was going to relinquish her financial affairs – presumably to a man though goodness knows none of her male relations appears to be anywhere near as capable as she is. It was almost like “I’ve found love and am going to suddenly become an empty headed female.” Bah! Hopefully she snapped out of that the next day. I have a feeling I would have enjoyed this one back in the day but now it’s a B-/C+